This time, we saw it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing along live — with Joshua Gersen conducting. In an outdoor pavilion. Even a group of overweight and overbearing suburban middle aged ladies whispering and giggling throughout it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. Vertigo is everything that makes cinema exciting.
Sadly, we didn’t stay all the way through the end. Ravinia is a schlep on a school night, and we had to catch the train back to the city. Oh, Scottie, don’t let me go!
Side note: I didn’t realize Vertigo is based on a 1954 French crime novel, D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud (a.k.a. Thomas Narcejac), writing as Boileau and Narcejac.
Screening preceded by a live discussion with Kim Novak
Ailurophobia, the irrational fear of felines, forms the basis for Eye of the Cat, a nifty little throwaway from the late Sixties. Despite what its trailer suggests, it’s not an outright horror film—it’s a suspense thriller that relies heavily on psychological tension, very much like Hitchcock did. This isn’t surprising: screenwriter Joseph Stefano previously penned Psycho. Those familiar with Hitchcock will notice a slight feel of Rope and The Birds. Plus, the external shots of San Francisco strongly recall Vertigo.
The plot rings familiar: cosmetologist Kassia Lancaster (Gayle Hunnicutt), whose name “sounds like a prison door slamming shut,” mysteriously and abruptly recruits philandering Wylie (big-eyed Michael Sarrazin) to help her execute a plot to get his rich and ailing stepmother, “Aunt” Danny (Eleanor Parker), to put him back in her will as her sole heir—and then kill her. Wylie’s brother, Luke (Tim Henry), lives with Aunt Danny and is getting in the way. There’s another problem: Wylie has a bad case of ailurophobia, and Aunt Danny’s house is loaded with cats.
Eye of the Cat‘s sum is greater than its parts, and overall I enjoyed this one quite a bit. The title and opening sequence are cool: the animated outline of a housecat slinks over scenes of San Francisco and gives way to split screens that start the story. Stefano and director David Lowell Rich are refreshingly frank and downright casual with their attitude toward and treatment of sex and drugs: nothing is merely implied here. In his first scene, Kassia yanks Wylie naked out of bed—away from the naked woman still next to him. There are references to having sex, they say “have sex,” and they actually do have sex in a few scenes. One unsettling scene between Wylie and Danny in the latter’s bed alludes to a past liason. Later, Wylie and Kassia go to a dope bar on a boat and smoke a joint. One of the patrons at the bar makes a joke about his own homosexuality, which may be one of the earliest openly gay characters I’ve seen.
All four actors, even Parker, possess an effortless and elegant allure. Sarrazin and Henry are hot, and they both have shirtless scenes. Hunnicutt is absolutely gorgeous in her smart skirts and big hair. Lowell Rich builds tension nicely, getting the actors to walk a very fine line between serious horror and camp, something most evident in a brilliant scene involving Danny on a hill in her wheelchair. Lalo Schifrin’s ominous score adds greatly to the mood here.
Except for a solitary orange tabby that clearly has Danny’s back, the cats—an overwhelming throng of them—curiously disappear after the story is set up, and don’t return until the climax. The film ends in a ridiculously horrific way—so bad, I laughed out loud with most of the audience. It’s a pity Eye of the Cat is not available for download or on DVD. It’s a fun movie.
I’m probably in the minority when I say that I found Vertigo stupid. The story, complicated and intricate as it is, takes a long time to get going; once it does, it’s so fanciful that it’s not believable. The movie is longer than it needs to be. Plus, the ending—I can only assume it’s supposed to be dramatic and impactful—comes off as silly; in fact, Aaron and I turned to each other at the same time and rolled our eyes.
All of this said, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the film. I did, actually—very much. There’s a lot to like here.
James Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a cop forced to sit on the sidelines after a bout with vertigo while chasing a criminal across a bunch of rooftops nearly kills him. A wealthy former classmate, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore), seeks him out and convinces him to act as a personal investigator; it seems Galvin’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), is possessed by her dead Mexican grandmother. She’s hot (even if she’s not one bit Mexican), and Scottie falls for her. Hard. It’s not long before he’s personally involved, wandering through northern California in her car with her. She opens up to him, he takes the bait, and he loses her. Or so it appears.
Vertigo is certainly a beautiful looking film. The interior sets are gorgeous. The exterior shots of late 1950s San Francisco are stunning, and considering how the city would change a decade later makes them all the more precious. The wardrobe choices are classic yet snappy. The restored version I saw was crisp and vivd. An ominous yet mesmerizing score by Bernard Herrmann takes Vertigo to an even higher place—no pun intended.
Being an Alfred Hitchcock film, there’s more to Vertigo than meets the eye. Symbolism is all over: tunnels, flowers, birds, towers, stairs, heights, the color green. It’s not hard to find articles, scholarly and not, that analyze the many themes here: desire, death, reality, appearances, power, the past, the damsel in distress. All this aside, I can sum up the message I got out of Vertigo in five words: “don’t think with your dick.” The interactions between Scotty and both Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Madeleine are sexually charged and tinged with danger. Vertigo is hypnotic, mysterious, psychological, and suspenseful even if it’s not exactly what I would call a thriller.
It takes some work to get through, but Vertigo ultimately proves to be a treat despite its flaws. After almost 60 years, it’s still breathtaking and weird. It’s easy to see why at least one so-called authority named it “the greatest film of all time” (http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-19078948). Hitchcock influenced many, but Vertigo immediately called to my mind David Lynch; I see traces of it throughout his work, and its influence on him specifically is undeniable.